The Living Building Comes to Life, One Petal at a Time

Later this summer, the Living Building at Georgia Tech will near the end of the design development phase signaling another major milestone in the evolution of what is expected to be the most environmentally advanced educational and research facility built in the Southeast. The project team anticipates construction starting later this fall.

“It is extremely exciting to complete the design stage and begin the handoff to the project’s construction team, Skanska,” said Steve Swant, executive vice president of Administration and Finance. “This has been and will continue to be a transformative process for Georgia Tech. It requires us to rethink our approaches, challenge our own assumptions, and find the best solutions to plan, design, and construct high performance buildings. We are already beginning to apply these practices throughout campus.”

Since receiving the green light on the project’s schematic design earlier this year, the project team, led by The Miller Hull Partnership and Lord Aeck Sargent, has been working hard to refine the design plans while delicately balancing many of the project’s performance variables. The inherent challenge is to provide a fully functional building, within budget, that integrates naturally into the Georgia Tech campus — all while meeting the strict building and programming requirements (the Living Building Challenge Petals and Imperatives) and Georgia Tech’s desire for highly flexible academic space.

Project planners feel they have already successfully met some of the requirements under the Place, Health and Happiness, and Equity Petals. These involve providing a biophilic environment that includes access to daylight and creating a strong connection to nature as demonstrated with the rooftop garden and porch plaza adjacent to the Eco-Commons (a planned series of campus greenspaces recreating historic waterways as part of a natural stormwater management and recycling system). In addition, Lord Aeck Sargent has been recently recognized as a Just Organization, a program that promotes transparency among corporations. Key project members are required to receive this certification as one of the Living Building Challenge Imperatives.

While progress is being made on meeting the requirements, several challenges still remain for the planners to consider: energy, for instance. To achieve Living Building Challenge certification, the building must function at net positive energy, meaning it must harvest more energy (in this case via photovoltaic panels) than it consumes. At the moment, the plans are to make the building available for occupancy 18 hours a day, 365 days a year. Based upon this rate and a full menu of interconnected variables, the building’s energy usage intensity (EUI) is expected to be 33 kBTU/sf/yr, which is 66 percent more efficient than the average building of the same size and occupancy. While this certainly helps contribute to the net positive energy goals for the building, any variation that impacts the intake or output of energy — such as simply operating a coffee cart — will alter the building’s performance.      

“Our team has been carefully considering as many variables as we can in the development of the Living Building at Georgia Tech,” says Joshua Gassman, lead project architect for Lord Aeck Sargent. “We know we are getting close when all the pieces begin to interlock — very much like an ecosystem. When something changes in one area, we see that change reflected in several other areas.”

Another major Living Building Challenge certification requirement is to avoid the use of Red List materials. Materials on the Red List are identified by the International Living Future Institute as “the worst-known offending materials.” The goal is to utilize materials and practices that are not only non-toxic but also ecologically restorative and socially equitable throughout the building’s lifecycle. To help tackle this issue, a materials working group has been formed to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and resources among all the various project partners. The team is currently planning to incorporate salvaged materials harvested on campus including wood from the recent Tech Tower renovation, slate from the Alumni Association roof, and granite from the foundation of the recent deconstruction of a building on 401 Ferst Drive. To help keep all these resources catalogued and assist in sharing this knowledge with others, the team is utilizing the material database, Portico, a pilot tool developed by Google and the Healthy Building Network. 

As the design development phase comes to an end, the team has made the following design revisions to advance several of the project’s guiding principles:

  • Rotating the auditorium to create a more compact footprint while ensuring universal access from all sides of the 170-person room.
  • Modifying windows to ensure an abundance of natural light on all levels of the building including the unisex restrooms as well as the basement that will house several mechanical systems including a cistern and composter.
  • Incorporating space on the rooftop to accommodate an indoor/outdoor classroom with views overlooking the Eco-Commons.
  • Trimming 4,000 square feet off the building (primarily in the atrium) to provide a more efficient and cost-effective layout without significantly reducing occupancy or programming space. To date, the Living Building at Georgia Tech project has 43,500 square feet of programmable space of which 35,000 square feet is enclosed space and 8,500 square feet is outdoor learning space.

Engaging the Campus to Deconstruct the Petals

On campus, several departments are also taking deep dives into each of the Petals and the associated Imperatives by implementing work groups and pilot programs to test several of the operational, maintenance, and programming concepts proposed for the Living Building at Georgia Tech.

Beginning earlier this year, Georgia Tech’s Landscape Services started training its team on Living Building Challenge certification requirements and planning pilot programs to better convey how a native, natural landscape will perform. The intent is to utilize these pilot programs to help share a better understanding of what works (and what doesn’t) to achieve certification, and appropriately apply these principles successfully across Georgia Tech’s urban campus.

Other teams are testing electrical loads and thermal comfort in existing spaces on campus to determine the potential variability in the new Living Building.

“We have a very unique opportunity at Tech to leverage our talent and expertise to literally test these concepts in our facilities before we make the commitment to implement them in the Living Building at Georgia Tech,” said Greg Spiro, senior mechanical engineer for Facilities Management. “Using campus as a living-learning laboratory is helping to accurately set expectations on how the technologies and occupants will behave in this net positive environment. Plus, we are learning about applications that we can replicate elsewhere on campus.”

To assist in operating and maintaining the Living Building at Georgia Tech once it is fully operational, Facilities Management is developing a comprehensive manual to educate the community about the design, and operational and maintenance requirements. This reference manual will assist Tech’s staff, as well as other future Living Building owners, in successfully adhering to the Living Building Certification standards throughout the building’s life.

Another group on campus, the Academic and Research Council is seeking to align the principles of the Living Building Challenge with the academic and research efforts in the classroom to develop a more well-rounded curriculum that incorporates the holistic requirements of the Living Building Challenge.

This past spring, the Council announced a campuswide call for proposals for research, teaching, and community-based pilot ventures connected to the Living Building at Georgia Tech. Of the 21 proposals submitted, six interdisciplinary research projects are currently receiving funding. These include:

  1. Workflows and Data Modeling in Support of the Material Sourcing Requirement of the Living Building Challenge — School of Architecture and Digital Design Lab
  2. Living Building Equity Champions — Office of Institute Diversity
  3. Biologically Inspired Sustainable Building Design Challenges for Middle School Engineers: Expanding the Educational Reach of the Living Building at Georgia Tech — CEISMC and Center for Biologically Inspired Design
  4. Documenting the Effects of the Living Building on Biological Diversity and Succession — School of Biological Sciences
  5. Pilot Project Proposal for Living Building Monitoring Systems — Brooks Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems and School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences
  6. Living Building Community Crowdsourcing — School of Civil and Environmental Engineering

Many of these proposal sponsors will actively incorporate these findings into the respective curriculum for the upcoming academic year, helping to embed the seeds of the Living Building Challenge deeper into Tech’s academic and research mission.

An official launch of the Living Building at Georgia Tech is scheduled for later this fall. For more information on the Living Building at Georgia Tech, visit and

Related Media

Click on image(s) to view larger version(s)

  • Living Building: Northwest View

  • Living Building: Entrance from Ferst Drive

  • Living Building at Georgia Tech: Proposed Conceptual Site Plan

For More Information Contact

Rachael Pocklington
Institute Communications